Libraries as Belated Spaces

Like many of my colleagues, I tell students I work with, especially undergraduates, that research is an invitation to join a conversation. What I do not tell them is that one always comes to the conversation too late. By this I refer only in part to the petty narcissism that, on the occasion of writing this piece, and following a number of trenchant blogs about librarianship — Barbara Fister’s, of course, and also Feral Librarian, Beerbrarian, and others — compels me to feel unfashionably tardy to the party, bearing old wine in new bottles or beer gone flat. Facing up, in a way, to that fear, I want to make the case that belatedness is actually of the essence of conversation (essence, as Jacques Derrida tells us, being always supplemental to itself). And I intend to come to this point by way of the claim that such belatedness is what libraries are all about.

Starting with some old news: the Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey 2012, released in April of last year. An imposing edifice of metrics, the report addresses the “attitudes and behaviors” of faculty members with respect to certain “strategic issues”: electronic formats, discovery, scholarly communication, etc. The crenellation of its many bar charts offer a glimpse into the library’s place in the professorial imaginary. Among these, Figure 40 stands out: showing percentage-wise responses to the question of “how important” are various library functions and services. In a talk at our library, Ithaka’s Roger Schonfeld dwelt on the evident disparity that this question provoked among the disciplines. As might be expected, natural scientists were neck-and-neck with their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences in agreeing that it is “very important” that “the library pays for resources I need, from academic journals to books to electronic databases” (around 80 percent). But in all other categories — from support for research, to preservation, to instruction — a clear majority of humanists assented to the library’s importance, outpacing natural scientists in each case by roughly 20 percentage points (with social scientists splitting the difference).

My humanistic predilections prejudice me against forced-choice surveys, which I imagine to be about as useful in this case as pictures of sandcastles to someone studying the properties of sand. Nonetheless, Figure 40 does make a good talking point. According to Schonfeld, libraries and librarians need to do more to reach the scientists on campus. Presumably, they languish in their lab coats, among their centrifuges and supercomputers and rats, ignorant of how much we might help them.  Now I don’t mean to dismiss the suggestion: relations of real substance and reciprocity with disciplinary faculty, especially in the sciences, have not always been librarians’ strong suit. Yet we want to be of service; it hurts to think that we only hold the purse strings

But what does it mean that scientists are more apt to consider the library’s importance in respect of what it pays for, than to value the fact that it “serves as a repository of resources” or “provides active support” for “research and scholarship”? The answer I keep returning to, which is both unfashionable and belated, or as some might say, worse than belated — being downright atavistic, or reactionary, the reflex of someone unwilling to face up to reality (the reality of university politics, the reality of the economy, the reality of the empirical structure of reality itself), the response, in other words, of a “hater,” retreating to his castle in the clouds — the answer I keep returning to is that the fate of the library remains bound to the fate of the humanities themselves. This is what Figure 40 reminds us.

This answer, of course, only begs the question: how are we to understand “the fate of the humanities”? Let me be clear about how I do *not* understand that phrase. I do not mean the digital humanities. Nor do I have in mind an image of the academic library as vault or temple for a political and economic elite, where the “documents of barbarism” (in Walter Benjamin’s phrase) are rubbed to a shine between the fingers of old white men trading quips and drinking single-malt scotch. (Such an image has clout in the public imagination: in this article, for instance, where the tension between the humanities and the sciences looks like a conflict between different expressions of privilege, with the library as their battleground.) The library I have in mind, like the humanities I am thinking or dreaming of, is not a vault. It is a public space where the past waits to be drawn into dialogue with us. A place where the latent dissensual potential of our symbolic practices, or however slight a sliver thereof, survives to seed alternatives to the present — the place where history remains heteroglossic, resisting the reduction to master-narratives and dominant paradigms. Cultivating attention in such a place, we can, as Socrates teaches Phaedrus, come to discern inside the hum behind us the voices of obscure poets — poets transformed into cicadas by time and frustrated desire.

Call that hum “culture” or “tradition”; call that straining to discern what it communicates “the humanities.” As the place that this discerning requires, the library I have described is an ideal. But a materialist ideal, for it is in virtue of its materiality that the library contributes to the creative anamnesis that makes culture what it is by making it differ from itself. I borrow and adapt this ideal from Andrew Abbott, an eminent sociologist whose article The Traditional Future still waits for its readership. Abbott describes the humanities and its sister disciplines as grounded in “library research,” i.e., as disciplines that “rely heavily on libraries for their ‘data'” (p. 527). Note that he is not talking — as librarians usually do — about library usage. Chemists and biologists and engineers use the library (or in the Ithaka survey’s terms, resources paid for by the library). In this slouching-toward-Bethlehem phase of capitalism, their patronage costs us dramatically more per use than their colleagues trawling through the stacks. But the chemists, etc., use the library for literature; their data, meanwhile, are generated by other means (and paid for by other funding streams). For humanists, there are no data other than what are waiting in the literature, the library, and the archives.

But it is not only a matter of where one gets one’s data. The kinds of truth sought by the humanities depend, as Abbott argues, upon the existence of something like the library. That is not so — or at least, does not seem so to their practitioners — for the varieties of scientific practice that locate truth on an interface between the material world and its mental representation. In what Abbott calls “standard research” (i.e., empirically driven work),

[t]he truth is thought to be out there in the real world (a, b, and c cause x), and our model is a hypothesis about what that truth is (maybe we think b and c cause x). We measure reality according to our model, and then reality tells us whether we found the truth or not. (p. 529)

Research in the library does not aim toward the verification of a model by a real world that belongs to a separate order of being . In Abbott’s example, for the Austen scholar there is no one true “Jane” out there to rule them all. Or more to the point, the “true” Jane does not reside in the world where her bones are laid; she resides in the minds of all those who read and think about her, a chimera in a palace of mirrors. “The task” of such research, writes Abbott,

is […] something like “maximally filling the space of possible interpretations” or “not losing sight for too long of any given region of the space of possible interpretations”—or something like that. That is, the computational criterion we must optimize has something to do with comprehensiveness and richness rather than with rapidity of convergence. (p. 538)

Abbott argues that the “computational” structure of library research is cybernetic; as such, it is inadequately described by the standard algorithms of search and retrieval. In a cybernetic system, one cannot draw a bright line between the mental and the non-mental, the ideal and the material, or the human and the non. In considering the library as a computational system  — a system generative of representations that have a claim to truth — a significant amount of work occurs in the minds and bodies of those who use the library: those roving, browsing, ravenously omnivorous or narrowly voracious readers, some of whom are also writers, writers whose truth-claims will one day enrich the intellectual and emotional constellation of the whole.

To call this network a “conversation” requires qualification on two points. First, the conversation is not simultaneous, or rather, apparent simultaneity is a slice out of a longer durée. But the lack of mutual presence of the parties does not amount to a systemic weakness, for it is this belatedness, as I have already suggested, that permits creative activity to emerge. Truth itself is not decisive, for every decision remains a wager against what is not yet. Its logic is not that of and/or/not; its logic, as Isabelle Stengers notes (writing about Alfred North Whitehead), takes the form of “yes, but.” A generative logic, rather than a verificationist one.

Second, the subject of this conversation is only itself. Hence the profound incomprehension behind demands to “demonstrate the value” of the humanities — or of the library. The value of both lies in the activity that they make possible, but not in an instrumental way, e.g., in terms of their contribution to better products, better citizens, a better understanding of the world. For what is an understanding of the world, apart from what it proves good for? In other words, how do we understand understanding other than in instrumental terms? To say that it is a question of arriving at ends rather than means is one way to couch the value of conversation, but I prefer another: that it incubates potential and promotes complexity (“maximally filling the space of possible interpretations”).

The belatedness of the library means that it will never demonstrate its relevance universally — no more than will the university. (The situation of the academic library vis-a-vis the university exactly mirrors the situation of the university vis-a-vis society.) But if the promotion of complexity should prove, in the current climate, incommensurable with the verificationist scheme that predominates under neo-liberalism, what is to be done? As others have said, perhaps we library partisans should begin by feeling the full weight of that question. For at stake in the fate of the humanities and of the library is a defense not only of the complex but also of the incommensurable — of incommensurability as a quality and a virtue. The library, as I imagine it, reveals its antagonism to the masters of equivalence in its refusal to be truly organized — in the essential recalcitrance of its texts, in the inadequacy of its catalogs, in its demand not just for sorters and filers and selectors and consumers, but for readers and writers, for annotators of the margins and dreamers in the niches. Analog or digital, the format matters less than the fundamental alternative kept alive, however marginally, however accidentally, by the existence of belated spaces of conversation: not to be a lenitive for capital. The value of the library hangs in part on its housing objects (and projects and interests and obsessions) that have, strictly speaking, no value — that have fallen, for a while or forever, out of the circuits of justification and exchange.

This image of the humanistic library is an ethical one, in which the value of the library emerges by contrast with Amazon’s or Google’s labor practices more sharply than with the functionality of search. Ethical — and pathetic, too, as in pathos, with reference to the passions that we allow to move us. A good place to start deepening this image would be with Barbara Fister’s call for librarians to take a stand in making academic conversations more hospitable and inclusive of those on the margins (beginning with our students). Or Eileen Joy’s idea that publishers should be responsible for creating new publics. Publics need libraries (in the plural, as it should have been all along…too late), because they need places or sites conducive to the sleep of reason, less like fortresses than caves, little blind-spots in the lenses of power, where ignorance and forgetting can ferment their surprises, and we can learn, however partially, to listen to both the living and the dead.


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